The League of Nations: The precursor to the UN

The League of Nations was an ambitious yet unsuccessful endeavour of the twentieth century that laid the foundation and idea of an unbiased international organisation to maintain diplomatic relations around the world; it is to this day considered the “forerunner to the United Nations”. The first of its kind, the League of Nations was an idea that was conceived post the First World War when powerful nations such as Britain, America and France sought to prevent the rising hostility between nations from spurring a Second World War. The idea was collectively set into action by the then superpowers, spearheaded by the then American President Woodrow Wilson, whose intent though ardent, was in hindsight unrealistic and far too ambitious. Post the First World War which was a period of immense destruction, in which superpowers around the world got embroiled in deadly conflicts, the victors of the First World War (Allied powers), arrived at the decision to found an international body for cooperation and diplomacy, building on the 14 points that had been proposed by the United States in the Treaty of Versailles, which “held Germany responsible for starting the war and imposed harsh penalties in terms of loss of territory, massive reparations payments and demilitarization“, the last of which more notably proposed the founding of an organisation to maintain international diplomacy. 

Just months after the First World War, in 1920, the wheels of the League of Nations were set to motion. At the time, it was handed the role of maintaining peace between the Axis and Allied superpowers, “settling disputes between countries and preventing global warfare”. The destruction caused by the war had in several countries in Europe and the US caused a massive influx in the number of refugees and displaced people, with poor and deteriorating health conditions. These were to be the primary focus of the League of Nations, which would work closely with the Refugee Organisation, the International Labour Organisation and the Health Organisation. In a sense, the League of Nations was arguably the very first ever collaborative international organisation visualised solely for the purpose of maintaining diplomatic relations between nations, of such a large scale. 

Yet while the League of Nations was a step in the right direction towards international cooperation for the then Axis and Allied Powers, its success was shortlived. Despite the fact that the League of Nations managed to settle conflicts between nations such as Finland, Sweden, Greece and Bulgaria, and managed to rope in countries like the Soviet Union and Greece, the glaring failures in peacekeeping did not go unnoticed at the time by the international community. In the year 1923, tensions between countries such as Greece and Italy began to mount as Italy annexed the Corfu, an island in Greece, an incident which the League of Nations failed to collectively take action against. Later in 1931, the League of Nations found itself yet again unable to prevent the Japanese attack on the Manchuria region in China, which led to the successive exit of Japan from the League in 1933. Indecisiveness from the League of Nations subsequently led to more diplomatic failures, such as the exit of Germany from the League and failure to prevent the much anticipated Italian invasion of Abyssinia. 1939, saw the epitome of the failure of the League of Nations, as the international organisation founded to ensure international diplomacy, failed to prevent the Second World War, despite its best efforts. 

In retrospect, the League of Nations has been assessed by countless historians for its collective failures. Many continue to attribute it to factors such as the refusal of the US to join the league despite its initiative to found the organisation. Others believe its collapse was caused due the absence or the exit of several powers, such as Germany, Italy and Japan, all of whom were influential at the time. Additionally, during its short span, on several occasions, nations found themselves in a conflict of interest in which diplomacy and relations between nations who were members conflicted and sometimes even opposed the “League’s requirement for collective security”. This, as a result on several occasions meant that although the League sensed rising hostility among nations, “The league didn’t have any power to stop them”. This was exacerbated by the fact that the League at the time did not have their own troupes of “armed forces” and as a result, was forced to rely on action from member states at the time. Other countries such as Switzerland, post the beginning of the Second World War, were noticeably influenced by the knowledge of the fall of countries such as “Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and France” to Hitler. As a result, countries such as Switzerland grew increasingly hesitant about vocally endorsing the League of Nations, an organisation that was supported and promoted by the then Allied powers.


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